Friday, October 14, 2016

mr161012 A Blinding Past  

Inspired by Isaac Lidsky in his TED talk in June, 2016 titled: What reality are you creating for yourself? 

People have many fears, such as losing your job or, worse, like going blind. A man gave a TED talk about how we create our own realities based on worst-case scenarios, and he started out by fooling everyone.
He listed five things about himself that he said were all true except one: “One: graduated from Harvard at 19 with an honors degree in mathematics. Two: I currently run a construction company in Orlando. Three: I starred on a television sitcom. Four: I lost my sight to a rare genetic eye disease. Five: I served as a law clerk to two US Supreme Court justices.
“Which one of these do you think is not true? Which one of these things do you think I am not? Actually, all five are true. I am all those things. I am blind.” From his hip pocket he whipped out a folded white cane with a red tip.
He experienced growing blindness from age twelve, until he was completely blind in a matter of a decade. As he described his experience, he made me think of the visual arts because, he said, “Vision takes up about 30% of our brain’s cognitive reasoning.”
Recently I read a remark made by an art critic who said she can only deal with what her eyeballs tell her. She reminded me of my skepticism about the importance of vision in the arts—my certainty that there is more to art than meets the eye.
I think there is an interplay between intellect and what we see. It’s central to my art philosophy.
However, Isaac Lidsky, on the TED Talk stage, had even more to say than how much vision determines our view of the world and our place in it. When he lost his sight, he gained a more total, encompassing view of life and work. His eyes no longer fed him images that shaped his understanding of reality.
When Lidsky was finished, I realized that his main message—that fear rises from visual impressions and creates a virtual reality in ourselves—applied to me.
He said: “Fear replaces the unknown with the awful,” and, “fear is self-realizing.”
Deep-seated fear shrinks and distorts your view, he said, drowns your capacity for critical thought with a flood of disruptive emotions. I believe my fears are rooted in my boyhood. The unpredictable forces of nature, man, machine and beast could ruin my father and our family the farm.
Lidsky warned, “When you face a compelling opportunity to take action, fear lulls you into inaction, enticing you to passively watch its prophecies fulfill themselves.” My father took action and he succeeded, but I was not like my father. If I didn’t act on my love of drawing I would waste my life on the farm—my worst fear.
My passion was for art. But how could a farm boy succeed in art? All I knew was what I saw in magazines, comics and TV. It was the ‘50s, after all, in small town in central Washington State, there was no art.
In the ‘60s, however, I got encouragement from my teachers: “Billy, you have talent. You are an artist!” I clung to their praise. I wanted to believe it, but my eyes saw the risk of failure. My father was reluctant, but he said that maybe in commercial art, I had a chance.
Then I met Lynda, and she gave me incentive to follow my intuition. It seemed like art was my only chance to get off the farm and into a life worth living. It turned out that I was right, with a few surprises and bonuses along the way.
There was the Vietnam conflict, which almost side-railed us. All in all, I was lucky; but I never ceased being afraid of the worst. To avoid the pitfalls, I just worked harder, drilled deeper, practiced longer, and followed my intuition.
When Isaac Lidsky was diagnosed with his blinding disease, he said he was sure that blindness would ruin his life, a death sentence for his independence and the end of achievement. He’d live an unremarkable life, small and sad, and probably alone.
It was a fiction born of fears, imagined consequences and assumptions. He believed it. It turned out his imagination was lying to him, but it was his reality—his virtual reality. If he had not confronted the reality of his fear—his virtual reality created by eyesight— he’s certain he would have lived his worst fears.
Living your life with more than your eyes wide open is a learned discipline. It can be self-taught. It can be practiced by holding yourself accountable for every moment, every thought, and every detail. He gave a list:
“See beyond your fears.
“Recognize your assumptions.
“Harness your internal strength.
“Silence your internal critic.
“Correct your misconceptions about luck and about success.
“Accept your strengths and your weaknesses, and understand the difference.
“Open your heart to your bountiful blessings.
“Your fears, your critics, your heroes, and your villains are fictions you perceive as reality.
“Choose to see through them. Choose to let them go.
“You are the creator of your own reality. With that empowerment comes complete responsibility.”
(Stephen Covey chimes in with his spelling, response-ability, the ability to respond.)
His next words were like a revelation to me. My fears had cost me my position at the University of Washington School Of Art—a hallowed horror-house filled with fears by design.
I imagined that if I continued to follow my intuition (that there was more to printmaking than visual art) I risked failure trying to prove it. Ironically, by proving it, my worst fears came true.
Finding true art itself is a challenge, and anyone who takes up art discipline as both a calling and a career must answer Lidsky’s test questions:
“What do you fear?
“What lies do you tell yourself?
“How do you embellish your truth and write your own fictions?
“What reality are you creating for yourself?
“Search them out.”
Thus Lidsky urged us listeners.
What my eyes have told me exacted a toll in years of missed opportunities and unrealized potential; they engendered insecurity and distrust when I really seek fulfillment, connections and engagement with a community.
For me, the shame and disappointment of resigning from the art faculty was my worst fear, and, as Lidsky has taught me now, the fear was a result of believing not what was true, but what I witnessed in my nineteen years there.
Instead of seeing all the accomplishments I made up until 1984, I saw the lowbrow back-stabbing, infighting, jealousies and fears that make art schools the way they are. I saw them and I dwelled upon them—as my journals testify.
On the other hand, deep in my heart and mind, I knew there was much more than what I had seen of art, artists, and artistry. Artists like Marcel Duchamp denigrated “retinal art,” judged by a stupid organ, a stupid conduit not wholly suitable for understanding art.
Lidsky quoted Helen Keller: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” For Lidsky, going blind was a profound blessing, because blindness gave him vision. When he went blind, he chose to step out of fear's tunnel into terrain uncharted and undefined.
“I chose to build there a blessed life. Far from alone, I share my beautiful life with Dorothy, my beautiful wife, with our triplets, and with the latest addition to the family, sweet baby Clementine.”

Resigning was not the end of my career as an artist and teacher, it was the beginning of another phase which, as it is turning out to be what Lidsky said it could be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

es161011 A unified field theory  

Jen Graves is Seattle’s best writer on the visual arts—and she stated one time that her eyeballs guide her in her work. This may be why I never expect her to meet with me. Her intuition that I am not a visual artist is correct. I am one of those who think the arts, like science, conform to a general field of energy that acts on all the senses.

That’s why we have different disciplines in the arts, and in science. To get one’s mind around a general field of art, where a writer, for example, could do well covering ballet, opera, painting, architecture, etc. is too much. The sciences, too, encompass too vast a universe for one person to comprehend.

A person may comprehend the vastness, but in an attempt to express it only a half-vast iteration would come. Einstein succeeded, we are told:

The Einstein field equations (EFE; also known as "Einstein's equations") are the set of 10 equations in Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity that describes the fundamental interaction of gravitation as a result of space/time being curved by matter and energy.” –Wikipedia

Despite that science and technology in general have brought wealth to and made Seattle and the surrounding region successful, the arts in general have just tagged along. This is partly because the educational and government institutions have not carried the burden of examining its place in a region of this kind.

Historians will point out, sometimes, a connection between the arts and the sciences or technology at turning points in art history. I think of color, for example, and early experiments in air travel. Also medicine, psychology and anthropology.

For as long as she has worked in Seattle (since around 1999?) I thought she might spend a few minutes with me. Those thoughts came when she wrote about Seattle’s art schools, or recent history. However, she never did contact me, and I think—because of her devotion to information that she can see with her eyeballs—she never will.

Why would she? The main channel for her production is The Stranger, the demographic for which is more or less like Jen. She has no interest that I’ve seen in art and technology. Who, in the arts, does, really?

The art and technology events or seminars are weak. A general field theory like Einstein’s is relevant, but the arts have no Einstein. He described the fundamental interaction of gravitation as I would have like to have seen described compared in the interaction of the arts.

That is what I was working on in the 1970s and ‘80s—a kind of general field theory that could be utilized in a university, like the UW, to structure an education program superior to that which was in place. I had in mind making a bridge, interacting creative art students with sciences and technology.

That’s why I found Dennis Evans, Carl Chew, Sherry Markovitz, Norie Sato, Nancy Mee and others so interesting as students and as community artists after they left school. They represented hope that, if I could build a program based on their proofs, as it were—their “10 equations”—then the UW would a place worthy their coming back to for post-graduate work.

By this strategy, the UW Art School would have been more relevant than it was at the time—which was more of a degree mill than a real center for teaching, research, production and service. As it was, it served (as Jen might describe it) the interests of old white men.

My efforts to change this failed miserably, and for three decades I have lived with regret that I failed; and—especially in the US American climate of the past couple of decades—I am losing hope.

On the bright side, however, my former students taught me that the basic tenets of my “general field theory” was correct. So, when I resigned from the UW, I took what they taught me and applied it to my life.

The sad thing is that my education seems to be serving only me and a few people who have occasion to learn what they need from my productions.

Wikipedia says Einstein had a set of 10 equations; I have a set of ten, too, which helps me to explain why some of my former students put their talents to effective use and provided Seattle and other cities with works of art, craft and design worth experiencing.

I made those ten into islands that I call “Domains of Expertise” in my imaginary place, Emeralda.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

ri161006 Why I left  

The title, “Why I left,” is intended to catch attention. I could have subtitled it, “Walking out of Norie Sato’s presentation,” or “Why I resigned from the University of Washington,” but that would be not entirely accurate—yet they are related.

True, I did walk out abruptly when Norie Sato gave a talk at the UW a few years ago. Lynda and I sat near the back but I was ready to enjoy Norie’s speech. She had recently been to China – just one more step in her list of successes spanning about thirty years.

I felt a little uneasy when she gave my name in the first minute of her talk. Not only once, but several times! She was giving me credit for having involved her in video art when she was in graduate school. Strangely, I felt like shrinking down in my chair.

You would think I would stand up and take a bow! My feeling was just the opposite. I felt confused, and as her talk progressed I began to realize a feeling that confusion was actually a sense of renewed grief coming over me. It was if she was holding up a sign – an imaginary sign – to the effect, “See what you accomplished, Bill? Why did you quit?”

She was giving me credit for having been a good teacher. It’s well-known that, especially to the Japanese people, teaching is an honorable profession. She was honoring me. Why did I feel horrible?
The occasion for the speech was that Norie was being given what they called the Bookmark Award (a kind of lifetime achievement). Jerry Anderson, whom I had met in 1969 in Oslo (an old friend of Norman Lundin) had architected the award with the help of Anne Gould Hauberg. Norman was its first recipient.

This month I am writing an article about my 1969 trip to Oslo, because I went there to study with Rolf Nesch, and also I lived briefly at the Munch museum. So, like Norie, I have taken some steps and had comparable success. My article may be published in the California Society of Etchers magazine next year.

The reason I should feel like writing about that time, eight years ago, that I walked out early from Norie’s speech is also because I’m in the middle of restoring a 1980 videotape about Japanese woodcut. The recording is titled,” Kurosaki Prints Again,” and I was asked by an Alabama student to make it available on the web.

Watching myself, as I was in 1980, along with Akira Kurosaki, inspires me to reflect on that night when Lynda and I left immediately when Norie was finished with her presentation. It was abrupt, like an escape.

Several other of my former students with there—for example Dennis Evans and Nancy Mee (who received the award in 2002). They gathered around Norie at the end to give her congratulations; I had a slight feeling like a daze. I just wanted to get out of there.

Was I embarrassed? How could it be that a teacher could be praised by one like Norie Sato, but living today ache anonymously? How did it happen that, in 1980, I was producing videotapes that would be value as long as 36 years later, yet, apparently, totally forgot forgotten by the school where Norie had studied? I was, and I am today, in a quandary—not sure what to do or what to say.

Many times I have thought about that night, and how it must’ve like a slap on her wrist (if indeed, Norie had taken note that I left). Days later, I apologized to her.

Today, some people might say I’m living in the past. Wise men have advised, “Do not be attached to the fruits of your action.” On the other hand, someone said those who forget the past will not have a future worth living and they will be condemned to repeat the mistakes of history.

The truth is, Jerry Anderson, Norman Lundin, and so many of the people I thought of as friends and colleagues at the University of Washington just didn’t get it. Incidentally, I don’t recall Norie giving any other professors credit for her early work. She honored me, and I was pleased immeasurably.

I cannot claim to have given Norie anything more than a nudge toward using some new ideas—like video experiments for art—while she was in graduate school. You will notice, today, that she doesn’t make video art, and seldom does she make prints. That she has found her own way is an understatement.

As to the other “subtitle” I might have used to describe this article, “Why did I leave the University of Washington?”

The answer is self-evident. In the videotapes – there are about 200 of them. – I have the history of my work at the school of extending printmaking from being merely a tangent to painting to being the ancestor of all technologies. I showed that students could take part in both the old world of printmaking and the new worlds that were on the horizon, that printmaking is the portal to new multimedia.

Norie was one of them. Dennis and Nancy, to, were part of that – and it’s all on tape. Sherry, Carl Chew, and a dozen other students who are still working today in the arts all participated.

I left the UW because I was invited to leave by the chairman of the art department in 1985, Richard Arnold. He took me out of the printmaking division—and teaching printmaking was all I wanted to do. He handpicked an individual to put an end to all the work that Glen Alps and I had done over the previous two generations. He directed Curt Labitzke to deconstruct the curriculum so it matched the conventional treatment—printmaking as second-class, bastard of painting.

I was required to spend one more year at the UW following my year-long sabbatical (which I paid for with my family’s property) the conclusions of which the faculty at the art school dismissed. 1984 a hellish year for me. I was so glad to leave. (I’ve always thought how Orwell’s 1984 came true for me.

I am not reliving the past. I am a teacher and an artist, who learned from my best mentors that it is practice that makes permanent. I practiced hard teaching for 19 years. By continuing to practice teaching (even though I was cast out of the institution) and using what I learned in school (ways of using new technologies to keep printmaking vital) I am, today, able to digitize and subtitle a 1980 lesson by one of the world’s foremost woodblock printmakers, Akira Kurosaki, for sharing on the web.

Sure, I walked out of Norie’s reception, and it was because I was forced to leave the UW that it was so unbearably painful to see a demonstration of a successful student give her teacher credit (where she felt it was deserved) and yet that teacher—me—had become a virtual persona non grata.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

pp161004 Envy and vindication  

The word, “vindicate” may express my need, i.e., I need, “to clear, as from an accusation, imputation, suspicion, or the like: to vindicate my honor. 2. To afford justification for; justify: as in, “Subsequent events vindicated his policy.”

Today I read another bestowal of honor on Anne Focke—the UW Art School “Alum in Residence.” I wrote to her my congratulations, and briefly vented my sad story—especially focused on my brief moment of recognition by the art history students, including Candace Kern.
This, plus my current work on projects spanning the past fifty years (coincident with Anne’s career), brings rise to a constant awareness. Like an elephant in the room, there is my need for vindication, to have my reputation as a teacher restored.
I was not “accused” formally back in the days of my teaching at the UW, because I did few things you could say as wrong. However, I was a whistle-blower. When people in the administration did things that were against university codes, or were harmful to students’ chances at getting the best education, I complained.
Complaining got me nowhere; so I would threaten to resign over some issues. I did resign at one point, and then retracted my resignation at Norman Lundin’s urging. Constantly being accused of being in a conflict with Glen Alps, and doubled and redoubled my efforts just to do a good job of teaching.
And that was the conflict: I stood for good teaching, research, production and services, but Glen stood for Glen. He had the backing of faculty, too, demonstrated to me one time when the chairman (a former student of Glen’s) appointed two others to be on an ad hoc printmaking council—Louis Hafermehl and Hazel Koenig.
In our meeting I was adamant about hiring a woman printmaker. “I want what’s best for the students,” I declared.
Hazel Koening said, “We want what’s best for Glen!”
There it was.
Because these days I’m working on some form of memoirs, I’m doing a lot of reading of my journals and videos. Concomitantly I’m teaching online in connection with my video archive and my Halfwood Presses. When I read about Anne’s new role, I realized that my reputation at the UW art school will never be vindicated.
The powers-that-be are still the powers-that-be, taking their direction from the graves of old, dead professors whose name they venerate.
All I ever wanted to be was the best in what I do. I also wanted to be part of “the best” of what there is to be had. And to be part of a Great University was my aim from the day I was selected by Glen Alps to be his protégé.
I was—and am—naïve to think that was what Glen wanted to be, too. I had to have it hammered into my head that he wanted what was best for him.
I was a true researcher, however, and I found that his role in the development of the collagraph consisted only of giving it a name. No one had ever bothered to name this mere technical innovation—unless you take Rolf Nesch who, for some reason, came up with metal grafiks.
Naïve I may be, but I was diligent in my research and my teaching. It was wrong that I should have been purged from the printmaking division, that Alps’ works should be purged, too, and that the direction of the printmaking division should be turned over the chairman, Richard Arnold and people like Bob Jones and Mike Spafford—who think printmaking is a minor extension of painting and drawing.
It must have terrified many on the faculty to think electronic arts would someday be as important as the physical, visual arts. The idea that installations and performance arts would crowd painting’s supremacy, and perhaps render it irrelevant, was troubling - to say the least.

I thought it would change peoples’ minds if I tripped out around the world and recorded evidence that I may be right about reinventing the printmaking curriculum to include other media such as photo, film, video and computer graphics.

It only made my position worse. Proof of work was not what they wanted—not in THAT direction, anyway. They perverted my work to mean proof I was nuts—and they pushed me to the edge and out of the printmaking division!
They won.
I lost.
However, in the long run, I won because today I have sufficient mastery of media that I can teach online, all over the whole wide world. I may not have an institution of which to claim a part and a credible role, but I have some of my former students’ good will, and on the Web people who come to me for instruction and fraternity.
This may, in a roundabout way, be as good as vindication as I’m going to get.